Suffolk farmers Richard and Natasha Mann are planning to hand over their busy arable farm and potato business and take a well-earned retirement. But, as they told Clemmie Gleeson, they have no plans to give up their Yarn Hill herd of Lincoln Reds.
When it comes to their business goals, Richard and Natasha Mann believe they have ticked off what they hoped to achieve.
Since taking over the farm at Iken overlooking the River Alde from Richard’s parents in 1991 they have grown the vegetable growing operation extensively, trading independently for 18 years before joining three local growers’ co-operatives, grown crops internationally, invested in renewable energy and established a successful herd of Lincoln Red cattle.
“We are a third of our way through succession planning,” says Richard.
“We split the farm into three for our three sons. I was really fortunate that my father handed over to me at 21 and we can’t wait to hand over to our sons.”
Peter, 28, Toby, 26, and Angus, 23, all live six miles from the farm and are involved in different capacities, as are their partners.
Peter and his wife Samantha will be taking over the potato business soon.
Toby currently works as an asset wealth manager, while his partner Lucy works in the farm office.
Angus graduated from Harper Adams University this year and will be working on the farm over the summer before deciding his next step. His partner, Lottie, is going to be working for Natasha part time while also working for her family’s rapeseed oil business.
Currently the Manns farm 1,052 hectares (2,600 acres) including 161ha (400 acres) of marshland overlooking the estuary.
The arable land is a combination of owned and rented blocks from 29 different landlords as far south as Brightlingsea in Essex. The Suffolk soils are very sandy, while those down in Essex growing areas are heavier.
As well as growing potatoes, onions, maize for anaerobic digestion, wheat and barley, plus oats for animal feed, the business rents sandy land out to other growers who produce turf and carrots. The farm grows potatoes on each field every seven years.
Irrigation has been a large investment over the years.
“We have 12 hose reels on the home farm and another 15 to 20 being used on our behalf by landlords,” says Richard. “As we are landlord for carrot and turf growers we are also irrigating other people’s crops too.”
“You can never finish. The best animal is the one you breed next year.”
The farm has a large reservoir which was constructed about 15 years ago as well as bore holes.
In the early years of the business, Richard and Natasha produced a variety of different vegetables including courgettes, beans and tomatoes.
But, seeing increasing problems with labour availability, decided to focus solely on mechanised crops and potatoes and onions in particular.
Key to the farm’s success has been working with other growers in three co-operatives, says Natasha.
She says: “We are shareholder of three local cooperatives; the Three Musketeers, Suffolk Produce and Agrigen which is an anaerobic digester. Richard sits on the board of all three companies.”
The three co-operatives, which are all based at the former US air base at Bentwaters are responsible for marketing 75,000t of potatoes, 30,000t of onions and produces 3.8megawatts of green energy.
Richard says: “We joined the co-ops about 12 years ago and now supply everybody from processors to supermarkets. As an individual farm we would never be able to do that.”
Audits and their associated paperwork is one of the biggest challenges and costs to the business and a full-time person is employed whose main job is keeping on top of the audits - 15 different audits are required on the potato side of the business alone.
As well as involvement in anaerobic digestion, the business has also invested in solar energy with roof-mounted panels which generate enough to power the irrigators, a packhouse and cold store, explains Richard.
“It helps with the horrific bills,” he says.
When it comes to their cattle, the Mann’s bought their first Lincoln Reds in 2006.
“I hadn’t had cattle before, but had worked with them,” says Natasha.
“We wanted something to graze the marshes and chose the Lincoln Red because they are beautiful, docile and easy calvers.
“As a native breed, they are really good converters of grass and thrive living outside 12 months of the year.”
All the cows just have grass in the spring, summer and autumn, with the addition of grass silage and strip grazed turnips over winter. Only the bullocks have any concentrates.
“We have been good friends with David Evans for many years and I bought my first five cows from him. He is still my mentor at 85 years old and it’s lovely to keep in touch.”
After the original five, Natasha then bought a bull and some more breeding stock and the Yarn Hill herd was born.
It was named after the hill on the farm which is believed to be the site of Queen Boudicca’s most southerly hilltop fort.
Natasha says: “It’s really just escalated from there. Now we are up to 110 breeding cows plus followers. I use five stock bulls, four of which are home-bred from Beverly and Hemingby bloodlines plus Foulness William, which I bought from Chris Page a couple of years ago. I have also bought two Walmer baby bulls to introduce some different genetics.
“The cattle have to be docile as most of the time I’m working on my own with them. When Richard gets more time our aim is that he will work more with me as we enjoy doing that together. That’s our retirement plan.”
"We wanted something to graze the marshes and chose the Lincoln Red because they are beautiful, docile and easy calvers."
The herd calves in two groups, with heifers giving birth in the autumn plus any favourite cows that missed the previous window and the rest calving January to March.
Calves are left with their mothers until about 10 months of age.
“Last year 105 females went to the bull and we had 95 calves which makes a success rate of 91 per cent,” says Natasha. “We’re happy with that although we would like to get it higher.”
“We keep them in family groups with about 40 in a group. After weaning the bullocks go onto meal. We use a homemade ration of oats, barley, bought-in distillers grains and sugar beet pulp. We use barley beef feeders out in the field and introduce feed gradually over a couple of weeks. They are left out all winter and given grass silage as well.”
The males usually start going to slaughter at 17 to 18 months old. Daily liveweight gain is 1.16kg from birth for these and they kill out at 58.3 per cent explains Natasha. Most reach R grade [71%] with the remainder [29%] at U. Typical carcase weight is 350-370kg with some topping 400kg.
“We do send some heifers to slaughter if they don’t make the grade,” Natasha says. “They will be ready by around 26 months with daily liveweight gain of 0.75kg.
“We don’t want to push the heifers, as it can affect their fertility later, so they are not fed any meal, just grass silage in the winter. We need 11 to 15 replacements each year and hope to sell about the same again as breeding stock. All the heifers are treated as a group until we have chosen from them.”
The meat is sold to Direct Meats in Colchester and Salter & King Craft Butchers based in Aldeburgh.
“Direct Meats used to specialise in supplying restaurants but has repositioned itself due to Covid-19,” says Richard. “Through them we supply a supermarket chain in Hong Kong and a hotel complex in Mustique.”
Meanwhile the butcher is particularly keen to take older animals from the herd. Inspired by butchers in Spain, France and Italy he markets these older Yarn Hill animals as ‘rubia gallega’.
"They are hung for longer and the resulting meat rich, deeply flavoured and speckled with creamy fat. He sells via his website as well as to local customers," says Natasha.
Showing is usually an important part of the year for the Manns so their cancellation was a huge disappointment.
“It’s our shop window for breeding stock as well as a great for the social side,” says Natasha.
In a normal year they choose a show team of about seven beasts and would take four to each event.
“We get to five shows most years and this year we had even bought a lorry to go to the Royal Highland and Royal Welsh as well,” says Richard.
Winning reserve interbreed honours at Lincolnshire Show last year with a heifer was a particular highlight.
Natasha says: “To even win a breed class there is an honour but interbreed championships at Lincoln is the next box I want to be able to tick.”
With that in their sights Richard and Natasha are looking forward to retirement more than ever to be able to focus on their beloved cattle.
Richard says: “You can never finish. The best animal is the one you breed next year.”